Australian Nature Needs Saltwater People Caring on Country


WWF-Australia proudly works with Saltwater People protecting culturally significant marine life and other species that call Saltwater Country home.

It’s important for us to return back to yunga yalga, which is Mother Earth and the sea, what we take.

Birri Gubba Juru Elder and Gudjuda senior ranger Jim Gaston

Saltwater People’s Unique Cultural Knowledge

Water is life. Saltwater People’s unique connection to Sea Country and the culturally significant species that call places like the Great Barrier Reef home matter in a way very few can truly understand. The need to nurture, practice and pass on Saltwater People’s sacred knowledge is something Sea Country tells us about, and its Traditional Custodians continue to listen as they have for thousands of years. They urge all of us to do the same, and take action in response.

If you look at the reef millions of years ago, that was actually part of our land. If we want to look after the Great Barrier Reef, we’ve got to look after the water that goes out to the reef. A lot of that water comes from the land nearby.

Uncle Eddie Smallwood, Gudjuda Reference Group Aboriginal Corporation

Gudjuda Reference Group Aboriginal Corporation Chairperson Uncle Eddie Smallwood
© WWF-Australia/Woody Spark

In Pictures: Meet Uncle Eddie & the Gudjuda Rangers

In the northeastern corner of Australia, where the Burdekin River spills into the Coral Sea and green turtles scour the Great Barrier Reef, Gudjuda Ranger Coordinator and Elder Eddie Smallwood’s ancestry runs back centuries. 

Meet Eddie

Case Study: Girringun Indigenous Protected Area

An Indigenous Protected Area, or IPA, is an area of land or sea cared for by Traditional Owners, who enter into a voluntary agreement with the Federal Government to manage the area for biodiversity conservation.

They commonly do this through skilled teams of local rangers, who practice Traditional Ecological Knowledge and land management in ways that are both sustainable and economical.

Thanks to the Girringun Region Indigenous Protected Areas, a breathtaking landscape spanning 1.2 million hectares, the region’s Traditional Owners are empowered to do just that. From the rainforests of the Wet Tropics to the magnificent Great Barrier Reef, the Bandjin, Djiru, Girramay, Gulngay, Gugu Badhun, Jirrbal, Nywaigi, Warrgamay and Warrungnu peoples are ensuring that their ancient knowledge and cultural values inform the management of a diverse estate.

Aboriginal knowledge of Country and how it should be managed offers a solution to the climate crisis. Indigenous Protected Areas don’t just benefit Aboriginal people; they benefit all Australians.

Whitney Rassip, Indigenous Protected Areas Coordinator, Girringun Aboriginal Corporation (Djiru Nation)

Within the Girringun Indigenous Protected Area, one of the lush and green sacred gateways to the Great Barrier Reef, lies a tree that tells us the truth about the land that surrounds it - the black bean tree.

The Black Bean Tree by Jirrbal artist Beau Pennefather Motlop
The Black Bean Tree by Jirrbal artist Beau Pennefather Motlop © Beau Motlop / WWF-Australia

The Black Bean Tree by Jirrbal artist Beau Pennefather Motlop © WWF-Australia / Beau Pennefather Motlop (IG: @beau_motlop_art)

The dark sky represents the incoming storms and rain which feeds the rivers and lakes. Which the black bean tree is known to signify. The circular motif patterns on the trunk of the tree represent a strong connection to the land. The circular patterns on the ground represent the spirit of the Earth and its connectedness to the trees. The Rainbow bee-eater birds and the Ulysses butterflies symbolise our people’s connection to the sky, and the Dingo and Green tree frog represent our connection to the land.

Beau Pennefather-Motlop

Jirrbal Artist

“We have a tree here called the black bean tree”, explains Jirrbal Traditional Owner Sonya Takau from Girringun Aboriginal Corporation. “It produces a very toxic fruit, but our people knew how to leach the toxins from that. And it was a staple diet for our people”. The black bean tree grows along essentially the entire east coast of Australia. Researchers believe that this is evidence that Indigenous Australians carried the seeds across Country as an important food source.

“Normally, around September through to November, it's supposed to flower into this beautiful orangey-red flower.” But sadly, as Sonya reveals, “The flowers are coming on much later now”.

Castanospermum australe flower (Courtesy of Wiki Commons). Jirrbal People call the black bean tree ‘mirrany’.
Castanospermum australe flower (Courtesy of Wiki Commons). Jirrbal People call the black bean tree ‘mirrany’. © Beau Motlop Pennefather / WWF-Australia

Sonya confirms Jirrbal People know this is one of the things local mob can ‘read’ from the black bean tree.

“When it does flower at that particular time, when it's supposed to, it tells us that the storm season is approaching”. It also tells Traditional Owners when certain foods are ready to be collected. After thousands of years, local Elders are noticing the tree’s messages are less and less clear.

I've been talking to my family and the old people, and they're saying it's changing. Something's not right

Sonya Takau, Jirrbal Traditional Owner, Girringun Aboriginal Corporation

On Indigenous Protected Areas around Australia, First Nations ranger groups are playing a vital role in addressing threats to our environment – by limiting the impacts of feral animals and invasive weeds, controlling wildfire and helping to recover native animals.

Country needs First Nations people and First Nations people need Country. That is a solution for us all to move forward.

Whitney Rassip, Indigenous Protected Areas Coordinator, Girringun Aboriginal Corporation (Djiru Nation)

You can find out more about the Girringun Region Indigenous Protected Areas here.

Vital Knowledge and Relationships

WWF-Australia is proud to support Saltwater mob working tirelessly to continue looking after the health of their coastal lands and seas.